Oct. 23, 2010
Soaring to death-defying heights is mere child's play for Sam Hayden, senior goalkeeper of the UCSB soccer team.
"I was about 6 or 7 when my brothers and I started playing these games with our dad back in Wyoming," he said. "One of them was called the diving game. He'd throw a football and we'd jump as high as we could and try to make these impossible, diving catches.
"I'd do it with my older brother Isaac and my twin James. My mom always stayed inside, biting her nails."
Little has changed for mother or son now that Hayden performs his high-wire act in front of a soccer goal. His vertical jump has been measured as high as 38 inches.
"Mom's been to a few of the matches, and whenever I go up into the air, she holds her breath," he said. "She never hesitates to tell me about it after the game, either."
Hayden's coach, Tim Vom Steeg, feels her angst.
"I hold my breath whenever he goes up that high," he said. "I mean, he's falling from eight feet up in the air."
It was never scarier than during the second half of Wednesday's 2-0 win at UC Davis when he was upended by the Aggies' Chris Beville while leaping high for a save.
"He did a full flip," Vom Steeg recalled in amazement.
"It's the first time I've ever landed directly on my head," Hayden said. "I saw the ground coming fast and knew I couldn't make it all the way around, so I tried to tuck my neck into my chest so I'd at least land on the back my head.
"I saw a bunch of stars when I hit the ground."
The fall dazed him and he lay motionless for several minutes -- the ball still tucked firmly under his left arm.
"I was pretty scared at first because I couldn't move," he said. "Then I moved my fingers a little to see if I was all right."
Vom Steeg took a leap of faith when he recruited Hayden, a small goalkeeper (generously listed as 5-foot-11) from an even smaller soccer state (Wyoming).
He was a three-sport star for Jackson Hole High, winning Gatorade State Player of the Year honors in soccer, all-state as a wide receiver and defensive back in football, and all-conference in basketball.
But he was under 6-feet in height and under the collegiate radar.
"Under-sized and under-recruited," Vom Steeg said.
He hadn't even heard of Hayden until Evan McNiel, one of the players he was recruiting from Arizona's Yavapai Junior College, brought him up during a phone conversation.
"He said, 'You should check out our goalie here,' " Vom Steeg said. "So I talked to his coach and his first comment was, 'He's 5-10.' I said, 'Never mind.' "
But he was still intrigued enough to arrive early for a match to watch him warm up during Yavapai's 26-0-0 season of 2008.
"What I saw was somebody with unbelievable athleticism, who was getting up and over everybody, and who had hands that were incredibly big and strong," Vom Steeg recalled. "I told Stu (Dobson, UCSB's goalkeeper's coach), 'This kid is unbelievable,' and he goes, 'How big is he?' When I said 5-10, he told me to forget it.
"But I said, 'Honestly, this kid has all the intangibles -- you're going to like him a lot."
The coaches of the Big West Conference liked him enough last year to vote him as the league's Goalkeeper of the Year. He led the nation with 16 shutouts, and his goals-against average of 0.74 and 85 saves were both tops in the conference.
His school-record streak of 595 scoreless minutes helped carry the Gauchos into the NCAA Tournament.
Hayden earned the nickname "Super Sam" for his high-flying ways from forward David Walker.
"We've obviously had some very, very good goalkeepers here at UCSB," Vom Steeg said, "and he's probably been our most athletic player, let alone goalie."
His only hesitation in signing Hayden came from all the nasty falls he witnessed.
"I told him, 'Look, you're going to come to UCSB and you're going to start for us, but you can't get hurt," Vom Steeg said. "It's our little arrangement. We've had that conversation over and over again.
"When I came out after he got hurt at Davis, I looked at him and he looked at me, and he knew exactly what I was thinking."
By the time Hayden's head had cleared, he began talking trainer Nina Hsieh into letting him stay in the game.
"She kept saying, 'Are you sure you're OK?' And I kept telling her I was fine," he said. "I am hurting a little bit right now -- my ribs and shoulder are bugging me a little -- but this is nothing new."
Hayden did have to sit out an automatic three-game suspension after he made accidental contact with the referee while rushing up to argue a non-call at the conclusion of UCSB's 1-0, overtime loss at Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 29 -- the Gauchos' only defeat in their last 10 matches.
"The official said, 'Don't touch me' and then pulled out the red card," he said.
His father, Paul Hayden, a Presbyterian minister, had come from Wyoming to watch the match.
"He told me the ref did a terrible job," Hayden said with a laugh. "He couldn't understand why I got a red, so I had to explain it to him.
"But it was fine -- it got Eric Reyes some playing time."
Hayden is actually one of 10 national finalists for the Lowe's Senior Class Award, which goes to the player who demonstrates excellence in the community and classroom, in competition, and with their character.
"He's somebody that you can easily get behind and support," Vom Steeg said. "He's well-respected and well-liked by everyone on the team because he's humble, and he's made the most of what he's got by working so hard at it."
Hayden will still hear an opposing coach talk about him with disrespect.
"He'll say, 'Look at the size of the goalkeeper -- just hit the ball into the box all day and bury one,' " he said. "And I love it when they say that."
It just adds more of a bounce to his step.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org